Combat and Incarceration

Trey Sterling

For every empire a Spartacus.

Two months after the storied Attica uprising, on Thanksgiving Day, 1971, hundreds of prisoners in New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison staged their own takeover. For twenty-four hours, five hundred inmates held six employees, including the superintendent, hostage after the guards cracked down on an illegal wine-making operation. At Attica, thirty-three inmates and ten guards died when the state raided the prison. At Rahway, however, there was no massacre. The inmates managed to submit a list of grievances to the governor, release the hostages, and negotiate a surrender.

The prisoners’ chief complaints had to do with the tyrannical regime of the new superintendent, Ulysses Samuel Vukcevich. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the middleweight contender convicted of murder in 1965, and made famous by Bob Dylan’s song “Hurricane,” was in Rahway when the riot happened, and blames it on overbearing changes instituted by Vukcevich. Whereas his predecessor “had been smart enough to let the inmates defeat their own purposes by running amuck and keeping their minds off where they really were,” Vukcevich “chose instead to put up iron gates inside the jail’s halls, which slowed the inmates down.” He disbanded vocational and educational programs popular with inmates and cracked down on illegal hooch. It was only a matter of time before, lacking diversions, the inmates exploded.

Two years later, in the wake of an investigation into the causes of the Thanksgiving Day Riot, Robert Hatrak took over as Rahway’s new superintendent. Now remembered as a great reformer, driven by a belief in redemption and resurrection, Hatrak had more base motives for reform; without it, he ran the risk of being taken hostage. Hatrak invested heavily in the kinds of vocational programs Hurricane Carter identified as essential to keeping the peace.

Carter and Hatrak butted heads more than they collaborated, though. The publication of Carter’s memoir, The Sixteenth Round, in 1975, was intended to expose the ongoing problems at Rahway. In its final pages Carter warns that a new riot is brewing, one he will openheartedly join, unless his call for reform is heeded. His leadership in the wake of the Thanksgiving Day Riot had radicalized him, in this era of widespread prison organizing. Realizing the obstacle that Carter presented, Hatrak raided the boxer’s cell and had him transferred to a psychiatric hospital.

Photo by Frank McMains. Boxers at Angola.

Hatrak learned some things from Carter, however. One of Carter’s sparring partners at Rahway, the only person to last three rounds with him, was James Scott. Having spent most of his life in and out of jail, Scott won ten fights in less than a year during a long spell on the outside, giving him a shot at the light-heavyweight title. Scott then returned to Rahway, long after the troublesome Carter had been transferred away, and in 1978 Superintendent Hatrak would recruit him to run his flagship “school” for boxing. The program paid inmate participants (pennies, of course) and let them earn points toward parole and shortened sentences. Hatrak also made a deal with the Western Boxing Association, which would allow Scott and others to take pro fights while still in prison, though title fights remained off the table. Scott won his first two pro bouts fought inside Rahway and, for his third, a match against No. 1 light-heavyweight contender Eddie Gregory, earned a deal with a little-known cable broadcaster, HBO Sports, to film the event, billed “Boxing Behind Bars.”

The fight was meant as a novel tune-up for Gregory on his way to the title. Even among his own trainers, James Scott was the underdog. But by the second round it was clear Gregory had no answer for Scott, who claimed the center of the ring and worked Gregory over with powerful body blows. Scott won the match on the cards, making the “Rahway Boxing Association” world-famous.


In the 1970s, in the United States, boxing was unbelievably popular, the largest sport by viewership. Muhammad Ali’s match with George Foreman, held in post-revolutionary Zaire, was watched by a staggering fifty million US viewers, over one-quarter of the population. Boxing was huge, and it was also Black in an era when Black meant revolution. The connection between Black power and Black athletes was visible in raised fists everywhere, but no figure emblematized this connection more powerfully than Ali, bravely refusing wealth and power to resist the draft and lending his voice to revolutionary projects worldwide, providing a vision of Black liberation in dazzling footwork and radical poetry. It’s not hard to see how a prison boxing program, at a time when Black radical organizing had convulsed the US prison system, could potentially bear the stamp of these revolutionary aspirations.

Hatrak’s vision leads us to interpret these programs otherwise, however. There is a telling moment in Carter’s retelling of the Thanksgiving Day Riot, when he tries to defuse things, calling out to the instigator: “ if you just want to fight somebody tonight, then I’ll fight you. Up here on the stage. Just me and you. There’s no sense getting everybody involved in this stupid shit.” Before starting the boxing school, Hatrak would have read Carter’s memoir, and would have noted in this incident a key insight: man-on-man combat can horizontalize antagonisms otherwise directed upward, at guards and wardens and the infrastructure of the repressive state. This was essentially Frederick Douglass’ view: for him, wrestling and boxing on the slave plantation were “among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection.”

Borne on the back of such insights, in an era of desperate counterinsurgency by the US, prison boxing programs flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. But as the carceral system became increasingly punitive in the late 1980s and 1990s, these programs were largely defunded, with the notable exception of the program in Louisiana’s Department of Corrections (DOC).

By happenstance, I would find myself introduced to the world of boxing in Louisiana’s prisons, still going strong forty years later. I was looking for a decent fighting gym, where I live, in New Orleans. My baseline stipulation was that it have skilled fighters and no cops, and with the MMA and jujitsu gyms swollen with cops of all sorts, my best option was the city’s boxing gyms. Several of these gyms are populated by ex-cons, and training there meant studying with people who learned their stuff in prison.

Boxing has long acted as a haven for a mostly Black underclass, providing socially acceptable spaces, techniques, and tools to resist an exploitative and predatory system. Having found themselves caught within Louisiana’s uniquely backwards prison system, convict and ex-con boxers are especially likely to have powerful insights into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to resistance.


Today, the Louisiana Institutional Boxing Association (LIBA) hosts its boxing program at six of the nine state prisons for males. Like most aspects of America’s prisons, it is highly segregated, with Black men comprising the vast majority of participants. And like nearly every other tradition in Louisiana’s prisons, it originated at Angola.

At Angola, a centuries-old site of Black confinement and resistance, the link between boxing and Black struggle remains clearer than at any other prison in the DOC. Named after the country where the slaves who built this plantation-become-penitentiary were kidnapped centuries ago, Angola Prison — a.k.a. the Farm, the Plantation, the Alcatraz of the South — is “a single catastrophe, piling wreckage upon wreckage,” enchaining the twenty-first century prison system to the slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Angola sits upon a vast, flood-prone plain. Its rich, cotton-planted soil bespeaks a history of Black exploitation. Since the late 1970s, when Louisiana began building new prisons, Angola has remained the feudal center of the state’s carceral system. It is a place where the rancorous spirit of Dixie flourishes, where the original program of the slave plantation remains fully intact, and where boxing is still king.

Angola was the site of the first recognized chapter of the Black Panther Party to have been founded on prison grounds. Convicted of murdering a prison guard, two of the best-known political prisoners, Black Panthers Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, spent over forty years in solitary confinement there. The Panthers had not been in solitary long when, in 1976, one of the most important figures in the world of Louisiana prison boxing, Valrice “Whop” Cooper, began his time in Angola at the age of seventeen. Railroaded by the state and media for a fight with a white boy in a segregated suburb of New Orleans, Whop was sent to Angola with a twenty-five-year sentence. There he would eventually become Wallace’s protégé, placed next to him in a 6 × 9 cell on the “Panther block.”

It was an exceptionally chaotic time to be the youngest inmate in what was considered “America’s Bloodiest Prison.” In 1975, US Magistrate Frank Polozola declared the penitentiary to be in a state of “extreme public emergency.” The ensuing federal oversight made overcrowding its central issue, while also attempting to address rampant sexual slavery and shotgun-toting trustees acting as proxy guards and hitmen for the all-white COs, among a host of other excesses.

But before the feds even began their probe of Angola, the Panthers had already been making strides on these issues. Upon its formation, the chapter’s first objective was to end sexual slavery, a practice overseen by the prison administration. Much of their discussion and organizing took place during group workouts in the yard, as Panther Robert King notes in his autobiography.

Roy Jones Jr., working mitts with Valrice “Whop” Cooper.

While Panther activity had been mostly suppressed by the time Whop arrived at Angola, the Panthers themselves remained unbroken. But Whop didn’t engage with Panther thought at first; he was too preoccupied with battling his way through the gauntlet that awaited young arrivals. After several months of fighting for his life, Whop was convicted of a new charge, this time for murder, and placed in solitary on the isolation block beside Wallace. For the next five years, Wallace spoke through the steel doors to Whop about Black consciousness while they played chess, calling out moves across the corridor.

Many years later, after being transferred to another prison, Whop would apply the ethics he had learned from Wallace to his coaching of the Dixon Correctional Institute’s boxing team, the DCI Gunslingers. The Gunslingers dominated the prison-boxing scene, and for several years DCI held the majority of prison-boxing belts across all weight classes. Beginning in the early 2000s, a number of Gunslingers left prison to begin successful pro careers. Among those trained by Whop with notable professional careers are Demond “Bodyshot” Brock and Eric “The Babyface Assassin” Walker, who recently starred in a high-stakes reality-TV show about boxing, The Contender.

Whop attributes his success as a cornerman to the egalitarian, solidarity-first approach he took to training fighters, principles he learned from Herman Wallace. When wardens would selectively give new equipment to the champs, Whop would push them to share it with other fighters. When fighters were injured or placed in solitary for losing, Whop challenged anyone complicit in this abuse. When fighters hailed from rival neighborhoods, Whop defused tensions, earning him the nickname Worldwide. Having this kind of integrity on their team empowered his fighters to do better.

For practical reasons, this defiant attitude is not the norm. To be on the
boxing team is considered a privilege, and the surest way to get that privilege revoked is to refuse to toe the line. Whop outright rejected this approach as “slave shit.” Consequently, he saw his own share of solitary and was removed from the team more than once. But his fighters loved him, and his genius as a cornerman was undeniable. Even the proudest wardens inevitably folded and brought him back to coach again.

Whop served twenty-three years in Angola and another twelve in Dixon. Towards the end of his sentence, a former trainee of his seen fighting on ESPN caught the attention of Roy Jones Jr., one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters of all time. In 2012, within a month of being released, Whop was flown out to Russia to train Jones for a championship fight. Today, Whop lives in Jefferson Parish, a New Orleans suburb. He continues to train and give direction to boxers at a gym called Uppercutz, which serves double-duty as a barbershop.


The first time I attempted to attend one of these boxing events, we were denied entry after an ex-con we’d traveled with got in an argument with a correctional officer he knew at the gate. It was only months later that I was finally let in to another fight happening at Angola. On that occasion, only one of my companions was denied entry, rather than all of us.

After being contained and searched in an airlock-like vestibule, guards took us in vans past stone buildings decorated with murals depicting Native Americans, wildlife, and cash crops, deep into the sprawling expanse of the prison grounds. The coliseum was a low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit cafeteria, rearranged to fit rows of folding chairs, a boxing ring in the center. On one side of the ring sat a row of prisoners; on the other, their friends and family. Scattered all about and in special seating were the various ranks of prison staff, along with reserved seating for their friends and family. Hot dogs, fried chicken, and nachos could be purchased at the inmate-operated concession stand. Profits from the event, a warden acting as announcer repeatedly reminded us, went to the “inmate welfare fund.” But who exactly this fund benefitted was a mystery, even to the ex-cons in our group.

Fight teams from five different state penitentiaries huddled on the far side of the room, a full complement of coaches, contenders, and champs. The room thrummed with energy, a temporary interruption of the dull horror of the carceral world. A few prisoners had the chance to speak to friends from across the barrier of rope separating our side from theirs.

“While inmate boxers strive together to become caloric engines of leanness and efficiency, the prison apparatus attacks them, strengthening them yet further. For the individual personnel who enforce this apparatus, however, their vocation of terror and torpor does not lead to a culture of strength or health. Instead, it costs them their bodies, their marriages, their intelligence.”

Nearly all the fighters who entered the ring went the distance, bobbing and weaving through all three rounds. The inmates shouted a barrage of tactical suggestions and combos at the combatants. They also cracked about as many jokes. Guards in the place of announcers and an all-white panel of judges called the fight from the sidelines. Meanwhile, an inmate film crew recorded the event, broadcasting it live for inmates elsewhere to watch over a closed-circuit prison TV channel.

The card we attended had fourteen fights. There were no lulls — surprising, given how few knockouts or TKOs there were. A night of fights that all go to the judges’ cards can earn boos from crowds hungry for spectacular violence, but for this audience the night seemed to be about something else. I had the impression that many attend more to see their families than to see violence. This might have also stemmed from concern for the inmates, who receive abysmal treatment for their injuries.

But I cannot speak for the entire audience. In special seating near the skirt of the ring sat wardens and other ranking prison administrators from rival institutions. This area, I was told by a friend and ex-con, is also sometimes shared with politicians and other powerful people.


What looks like an underground cage fight is, essentially, just that. Prisons are cages. But far from illegal, these arenas are state-sanctioned. Everything is overseen by the prison administration. You are unlikely to hear about them, for in Louisiana, the media only reports what they are told, and information coming in and out of prison is highly restricted. Nevertheless, such events have been happening publicly since the early 70s, when the boxing association was founded by Henry Montgomery, a 17-year-old who fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court and, in 2016, won a decision that retroactively rules sentences of mandatory juvenile life without parole unconstitutional.

Known mostly for its brutal annual prison rodeo at Angola, a spectacle in which inmates risk serious injury facing off with bulls and wild horses, the Louisiana DOC also hosts a number of other sports programs: football, basketball, and softball, to name a few. Like boxing, these sports feature seasonal schedules of inter-penitentiary competitions, many of which are open to the public. But no other sports program rivals the popularity of the LIBA.

The LIBA is USA Boxing certified to host sanctioned amateur fights. This means that real amateur fights get tallied to the fighters’ passbooks in order to help them go professional later, assuming they get out while still young enough to fight. But the experience an inmate can accrue as an amateur is unusually high, making the distinction between pro and amateur a bit misleading. The season of scheduled fights runs from February to December. With as many as sixteen events in a season and a limited pool from which to build the cards, inmates tend to compete far more often than the average boxer does on the outside.

One would be hard-pressed to find teams of fighters more dedicated than those in the DOC. Almost everyone in Louisiana’s prison must work at least forty hours a week, unpaid or for pennies, in prison-specific industries and agriculture — yet anytime there is an opportunity to train, in the gym during the day or out in the yard at night, fighters can generally be found working this second, unpaid, job.

The term gladiator gets tossed around a lot in combat sports. Here its use is literal. Under conditions entirely unfree, the talents of boxers and other fighters are used by their overseers to accrue profit and prestige while providing unwholesome entertainment. Not only do staff gamble on fights, but the prison receives revenue from the state and sales at events to control its costs, chalked up to so-called inmate welfare. In the days of professional promotions like “Boxing Behind Bars,” promoters and broadcasters would also take their cut.

But administrators and promoters, as we’ve seen, are far from the only beneficiaries. Prison boxing leagues produce a more complex situation in which prisoners are neither unfortunate victims, nor criminals deserving of punishment, but people struggling for power in a situation designed to rob them of it. They are gladiators. And as one would expect, they are locked within a matrix of contradictions. In prison boxing leagues, prisoners are able to pursue modalities of strength training and growth more broadly, while simultaneously being denied the basis for building a truly collective power.


Standing in sharp contrast to the health trip of the inmates are the correctional staff. For all their “freedom,” they remain trapped in a feeding frenzy of human suffering. Their exercise regimen hypertrains a single repressive reflex: to wield the baton, to disperse and suppress every situation, day in and day out.

While inmate boxers strive together to become caloric engines of leanness and efficiency, the prison apparatus attacks them, strengthening them yet further. For the individual personnel who enforce this apparatus, however, their vocation of terror and torpor does not lead to a culture of strength or health. Instead, it costs them their bodies, their marriages, their intelligence.

Tired and bored, the staff sitting in special seating next to the ring are rarely the baying jackals one would expect. No performance seems capable of bringing them to their leaden feet. They are listless, their fatigue more notable than any show of enthusiasm. Some of it might be a poker face; it’s common knowledge that personnel from rival institutions bet big money on these fights. But the malaise that hangs over prison staff has to do with a gamble bigger than those taking place at any given event.

Every day that forty thousand people, men and women, remain incarcerated by the State of Louisiana, the mostly rural populations who staff its prisons make the losing wager that security pays bigger dividends than trust. This bet began in the 70s when, faced with the threefold crisis of civil unrest, overcrowded prisons, and looming economic crisis, states nationwide began devising new projects to mediate the contradictions of capitalist society. Rather than downsizing prisons — as many states, including Louisiana, had promised they would in the mid-70s — law-and-order conservatives set out to crush civil unrest. In speeches and policies, their political foe was invariably codified as “rising crime rates.”

In 1975, spurred by a flowering of prison riots and prison organizing, reformers promised to significantly reduce Louisiana’s incarceration rate by decreasing Angola’s inmate population by a third. The transitional strategy began with “decentralization,” a short-term solution that worked to reduce Angola’s overcrowding by transferring inmates to several newly created, temporary satellite prisons. These facilities were to be phased out as new legislation was written to lower the state’s incarceration rate. The whole project was short-lived. As the political winds shifted, every one of these mini-jails became their own permanent fiefdoms. By 1980, the inmate population in Louisiana had doubled, with additional prisons built throughout the 80s and 90s.

Mass incarceration rests on the promise of reliable jobs for workers willing to administer the criminalization of the country’s growing surplus populations. Today, the cynicism of this social divestment strategy can be found inscribed on the stressed and damaged bodies of correctional staff. The pitiably low wages that the prison industry pays in no way compensates for the concomitant havoc wrought by a bloated police apparatus and judicial system that preys upon exactly the same populations that prisons employ. Especially in the Deep South, nearly all prison employees are part of the rural poor, both Black and white.

Existing in the same class as those they’re tasked with caging, the greater world of the nominally free correctional officer is made up of rising morbidity and mortality rates in rural areas, where drug addiction and inter-community violence are often seen as the only way to cope with the many hardships of rural life. It is for this reason that, however little they know it, the prison guards’ salvation is just as dependent upon the abolition of prisons as that of their incarcerated wards.

Malik Da God, after winning the light heavyweight title in 2011.

Imagine a Rocky-style training montage for prison boxers: a young man running through the yard, beneath scoped rifles, shadowboxing in his cell, running up stairs, not to an open sky, but to a slatted window where he holds up a single fist as goon squads raid a nearby cell block with clubs and tear gas. These things happen. The prison boxers spend their time cultivating a focused, healthy routine, while their captors administer the maximal level of violence that the state and the inactive public will allow.

All inmates suffer from almost nonexistent medical care, an awful diet, and the deleterious effects that confinement has on the mind and body. Competing in a combat sport raises the stakes of these untenable conditions considerably. Being sent to solitary confinement, beaten and blood-crusted, instead of to a doctor following a loss because it cost an administrator a bet, is just one additional risk fighters must contend with.

Yet in and against these conditions, incredible things occur. Fighters may lack the tinctures and salves needed to heal and maintain bodies pushed to the limit, but through communal struggle, they tap into resiliency. With this reclamation of shared strength, another day in hell becomes what Whop described to me as “God time.”


Former LIBA heavyweight champion, Malik da God, speaks with great eloquence of this aspect of communal training. Twenty-five years into a life sentence at Angola, he has spent years working with revolutionary prisoners in a prison-abolitionist organization called Decarcerate Louisiana. In correspondence, he told me: “Penitentiary boxing only instills self-discipline within a fighter; it is the institution that exploits boxers by waging bets on fights and even threatening some fighters with a trip to the dungeon if he don’t bring back the title.” This institutionalized violence has roots centuries deep, in Malik’s view:

It’s the same as the slaves on a plantation back in 1800 being pitted against each other in a bloody knuckle punch-out, just to please the racist peckerwood. The slave that loses is often humiliated in front of other fearful slaves. . . . But the winner is also constantly reminded that his slave master is superior. Prison is no different. The slave masters of today (wardens, colonels, etc.) favor some inmates over others and exercise this power by placing certain inmates in privileged positions like hospital jobs, visit shed jobs, jobs as warden clerks, kitchen clerks, medical records clerks, jobs in rec, etc.

Malik knows the history well — he’s lived it. With a 10-0 record, all by way of knockout, you would expect he’d enjoy some degree of relative comfort. Heavyweight champions are the king of sports, after all, “the real Mr. America,” as Eldridge Cleaver said, tongue-in-cheek, in his essay detailing Muhammad Ali’s battle with white America. But if the careers of major athletes on the outside like Colin Kaepernick can be thrown into jeopardy by an errant comment to the press or a bended knee, inmate athletes risk much more when they take a partisan stance. Once Malik began speaking out against the DOC and its barbaric ways, no amount of money extorted from his success could prevent him getting eighty-sixed from the program forever. And like many who’ve chosen the path of greater resistance at Angola, the vast majority of Malik’s time has been spent in a 6×9 isolation cell.

Malik likes to call the boxing program a Willie Lynch letter, referring to an apocryphal document that claims to be the founding instructional on managing the enslaved by pitting them against each other, just as Frederick Douglass described plantation-era combat sport as a tactic of counterinsurgency, pure and simple. For a counterinsurgent force, the combative physical culture of its subjects is a raw material to extract and profit from, like any other. But fighting instincts developed in and against the devastating conditions of capitalism can be a volatile resource, capable of catching fire at any moment. Combative sports, styles, techniques, and cultures often attain a wild, subversive traction within the working class, attacking taboos and the regulatory effects of commercial and religious life.

As a result, combat culture becomes an important site of state intervention. There, as elsewhere, the state wants to organize and monopolize violence, directing it toward sanctioned purposes. This dance with the state is especially evident in combat sports’ earliest phases. Many of the most popular martial arts worldwide were the adjunct of nation-making processes, from Soviet Sambo to Israeli Krav Maga, Indonesian Silat, or Chinese Wushu. Against these national projects, obscure and sometimes mythic arts of combat flourish — capoeira in Brazil, for example, which allowed slaves to disguise combat training as dance. Its origins lay in a ritual dance from Angola (or what was later called Angola) believed to have inspired similar martial arts throughout the African diaspora, including a US variant called “kicking and knocking.” The mythical and perhaps apocryphal prison fighting style, known as 52 Handblocks or Jailhouse Rock, attested to by Mike Tyson and popularized by Wu-Tang Clan, claims its origins in a variant of knocking and kicking adapted for the close-quarters combat of multi-person prison brawls.

Photo by Frank McMains

These undercurrents are present throughout the history of boxing. Long before Ali, Joe Louis, and even Jack Johnson, there was Bill “The Black Terror” Richmond. But the first great American prizefighter never fought in America. Born a first-generation slave of West African descent, Richmond was freed during the American Revolution and, showing a knack for hand-to-hand combat, moved to England, where he could compete in boxing. In the early 1800s, tests of strength in England’s preferred working-class sport were defined by who was the better “bottom.” This term, which held rather different connotations than it now does, referred to a fighter who maintains his poise under a barrage of blows to win out in a largely stationary slugfest. Within this context of flat-footed fighting, all it took was a more evasive style of boxing characterized by lateral movements in search of angular openings (common defensive techniques in the combat styles of the Angolan diaspora at the time) to devastate not only Richmond’s opponents, but also the nationalistic and racial pretensions of England as a whole. To this day, the footwork and defensive fighting styles he introduced remain foundational.

The Romans once satisfied their desire for carnage by watching their slaves fight to the death in the style of pankration in the Colosseum. The unintended outcome is well known: their empire experienced its first true insurrection during the Third Servile War, led by a gladiator and messianic figure named Spartacus. It would be foolish not to acknowledge the counter-insurrectionary powers of martial arts, so aptly described by Frederick Douglass. But it would be equally foolish to ignore the subversive power such practice might have, in particular historical contexts.

Many boxing programs which opened at the same time their revolutionary potential was being viciously suppressed have since closed. We can imagine a not-so-distant future where austerity and cybernetics will phase out inmate sports entirely, replacing them with quieter and more efficient tech-based forms of control driven by prison-specific surveillance companies like Securus. As Panther and paragon of the partisan inmate spirit George Jackson put it, shortly before his assassination:

We will never have a complete definition of fascism, because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class. But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be “reform.”


One of the more popular fight nights of the LIBA season happens at B.B. “Sixty” Rayburn Correctional Center (RCC). Located within unincorporated pine forest near the town of Bogalusa, RCC was built after the local lumber mill downsized. Bogalusa was once a classic company town, with mill interests ruling the economy and enforcing segregation. Mid-century layoffs spurred by automation decimated the mostly white labor force, which rallied not against the bosses who were at fault, but against the perceived menace of Black residents organizing for desegregation. Bogalusa quickly became home to the largest Klan organization in the South. As white terror escalated, the Black men of Bogalusa formed Louisiana’s second chapter of the Deacons for Defense, the armed community-defense organization. The heated showdowns and gun battles in the area were some of the most combative episodes of the Civil Rights era. The eventual construction of a prison so close to these sites of resistance is no coincidence.

While Bogalusa’s population and tax base has dwindled in the decades since (so much so that the city had to be placed under emergency fiscal administration last year), the prison has grown and its boxing program with it. RCC opens the LIBA boxing season every February with the “King of Hearts,” named for the title awarded at the end of the night to the fighter who has shown the most heart.

Attracting a much larger and more racially diverse crowd than I am used to seeing at fights, the event clearly had cultural significance for the surrounding towns. What I initially thought was the radio playing Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song” over the loudspeaker turned out to be a perfect cover performed live by an inmate rock band called The Shakedowns. Between fights, our troubadours sang down to us from their stage, a balcony-like storage space that sat above the wall to my back, cordoned off by a chain-link fence. Two murals adorned most of the rest of the room’s wall space, one of a boxer throwing a stiff jab over the words “King Of Hearts” and another reading The RCC Hardhitters, 2017 LIBA champions. Dangling from the rafters above the ring skirted in red, white, and blue hung a large American flag. The event’s opening ceremonies involved a color guard performance by inmates in uniform, holding plastic rifles, followed by the singing of the national anthem. The color guard, like the band, was all white. Except for inmates who weren’t white, a few Black teenagers in the bleachers, and myself, everyone stood for the anthem, hand to chest. For the rest of the night an enormous, white boar hog of a CO eyed me suspiciously.

Sitting beside me was a child, his father, and his grandfather: three generations of white males from the nearby Tangipahoa Parish, a place with its own checkered past. The father was Will “Kid Fire” McIntyre, an active-duty sheriff and retired professional boxer whose training once involved using inmates as sparring partners. Resting on his son’s lap were his two title belts, one for middleweight, the other for a light-heavyweight championship. The grandfather proudly told me about his son’s extensive, though hardly lucrative, accomplishments as a boxer. Based on Kid Fire’s grunted speech and far-flung gaze, he looked to now be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a serious brain disease common among boxers and football players. Kid Fire reffed about half of the fights throughout the night. Without ever seeming to direct his unfocused stare at anything in particular, he oversaw with perfect precision the fighters’ every move, keeping them confined to the strict rules of the ring.

The fight that won the King of Hearts trophy was a merciless brawl between two inexperienced middleweights. The winner was the first, and only, white inmate I’ve ever seen compete, a man other inmates called Harry Potter. Tatted from swollen ankles to stalky neck, it seemed like he’d received that moniker based on his novelty factor alone. Dropped on his ass early in the first round with a ferociously clean cross to the jaw, Harry Potter came back in the second and third with a frenzy of ugly yet unrelenting haymakers, heaving his way into a decision win. Both fighters had shown magnificent fortitude. The fight was a total mess. Throughout it, the crowd roared nonstop, before giving way to a collective sigh of relief. The search for the king was over, the heart of a heartless world found.